I never knew.
That's a very common human response to that most uncommon and shocking of news: a fellow human being has taken her own life and committed suicide. By his own hand a loved one or neighbor or stranger or celebrity has killed himself.
I never knew.
That she was in so much pain. That he was an addict who struggled for years to tame his inner demons. That she suffered from a mental illness which pushed her over the edge: depression, schizophrenia, post traumatic stress disorder. That he was so wounded by life. That she hurt inside so badly.
I never knew.
Finally we humans do not know, cannot ever fully know, what inner battles a fellow human being is fighting. What psychic battlefields that person next to you on the subway or the street or in the pew at church is walking through. We can't know. We don't know.
It's been fascinating and frustrating to witness our culture's response to the recent suicide of comedian and Academy Award winning actor Robin Williams. Social media in particular has been filled with weird, wonderful, wacky and wild ideas about Williams' death. Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh said Williams' suicide somehow had something to do with his liberal politics. Complete strangers who never knew Williams, never met him, posted intimate and teary tributes. Kind of touching, I suppose. Kind of strange too, so reflective of our fame obsessed world. Some used his death to raise awareness about mental illness and suicide. That's a positive. Some news outlets, like voyeuristic vultures, reveled in the gory details of Williams' death.
In the rush to fill the eerie silence following so swift and shocking a death as Williams', the temptation in this age of media immediacy is to always instantaneously respond, act as if we know. And then opine, declare, conclude, pontificate. Yet most of these often self serving lamentations shed little or no light upon the private and unknown personal psychic battles Williams fought and apparently, eventually, succumbed to.
Suicide is awful for so many reasons. It leaves those left behind with the ragged and ultimately unanswerable question of "Why?" It cuts short whatever gifts a person might have brought to the rest of their one life and the world. It can haunt a family for generations to come. It tears at the fragile cloth of what it means to be a human being and leaves in its wake bittersweet mystery.
For me the one clear spiritual truth I take from Williams' so sad death is this. Since we can't ever know fully what private battle he was fighting in his heart, what any human finally faces in her dark night of the soul, all we can do, must do, is to treat others, treat ourselves, with tender care. With soulful compassion. With God inspired love. With gentle and patient understanding, because all of us, at one time or another: we fight the battle within.
We wonder if we are really worth it. We lie awake at three o'clock in the morning and stare at the ceiling, overcome by anxiety. We are confronted by the uncontrolled appetites of addiction and try our best to stay clean and sober. We worry about our loved ones. Are they safe? Will their lives turn out well? We pray to our God and sometimes hear a response and sometimes wonder if there is really anything or anyone out there listening.
We are human: beautiful and broken, happy and haunted, serene and striving, every last one of us. None of us is exempt. So I pray that we can all remember this shared reality as we travel along together in the journey of life.
Thank you Robin Williams. May you rest in peace. Peace.